Charles Leclerc Max Verstappen practice session Saudi Arabian GP

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Despite a raging fire at a nearby oil depot following an attack, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix maintained business as usual on Friday night. The Formula One race on Sunday was also expected to go ahead.

After Yemen’s Houthis rebels acknowledged they launched attacks on the kingdom, Saudi Arabia state TV said there was a “hostile operation” that targeted the Jiddah oil depot, which erupted in flames during the first practice about 11 kilometers (seven miles) from the F1 circuit .

Despite this, the second practice was delayed by just 15 minutes following a meeting between drivers, team principals, F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali, and Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of motorsport governing body FIA.

Another meeting was expected later Friday between Domenicali and team principals.

Drivers did not talk about the attack after practice, with comments in media releases limited to the day’s racing.

Race promoter Saudi Motorsport Company said nothing will change with regards to the third practice and qualifying scheduled on Saturday and the race on Sunday.

“We are aware of the attack on the Aramco distribution station in Jeddah earlier this afternoon and remain in direct contact with the Saudi authorities,” the SMC said in a statement. “The race weekend schedule will continue as planned. The safety and security of all our guests continues to be our main priority and we look forward to welcoming fans for a weekend of premium racing and entertainment.”

The attack targeted the same fuel depot the Houthis attacked in recent days, the North Jiddah Bulk Plant just southeast of the city’s international airport which is a crucial hub for Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca.

The plant stores diesel, gasoline and jet fuel for use in the kingdom’s second-largest city. It accounts for over a quarter of all of Saudi Arabia’s supplies and also supplies fuel crucial to running a regional desalination plant.

The Houthis have twice targeted the North Jiddah plant with cruise missiles. One attack came in November 2020. The last came on Sunday as part of a wider barrage by the Houthis.

An Associated Press photojournalist covering the first practice on Friday saw the smoke rising in the distance to the east, just after 5:40 pm local time. As the flames rose, the tops of the tanks of the bulk plant were clearly visible.

In the second practice, Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc led the floodlit session by 1.4 seconds ahead of Max Verstappen, having also beaten him in the first practice. Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton improved from earlier but was only fifth, ahead of Mercedes teammate George Russell in sixth.

Earlier, drivers appeared unaffected by the nearby explosion and focused in the first practice. Leclerc led it by .116 seconds from Verstappen.

But Mercedes struggled again with the weight of its car and bounced around on track. Hamilton was ninth quickest and Russell was 15th.

Leclerc won last Sunday’s season-opening race in Bahrain, where Verstappen and his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez scored no points after retiring near the end of that race.

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AP photographer Hassan Ammar contributed from Jiddah F1 track.

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